The Casting Couch – myth, taboo, or harsh truth? Almost since the emancipation of the film industry the casting couch has made a prominent mark for itself in the lives of those involved. As the tale goes, young women and men receive acting roles in films in return for granting sexual favours to the casting agents (Caroll 2015). But with the recent overarching presence of postfeminism has there been any change? Or is it now considered a part of a neoliberal society?
When cinema had just begun, female characters would often be performed by men; and in the 15th and 16th century when women actors were introduced they were conveniently considered as prostitutes (Langsted 2005 as cited in Kleppe 2010). One of the most dramatic issues since then has been the portrayal of deep – sometimes tragic – love between men and women. Hov (1990: 51 as cited in Kleppe 2010) indicates that the “actresses became a living symbol of the theatres erotic element, the prevailing audience considered her as fascinating and tempting, and the moralists found her seductive and dangerous”. And thus began the sexualisation of woman body.
Bollywood – like any other film industry – is intensely competitive and nepotistic. Aspiring actors who are not sons, daughters or relatives of already existing famous actors have no way to enter the industry without a golden ticket. Of course if golden tickets existed this world would be a different place. In their desperation to enter the industry aspiring actors end up enduring inappropriate situations from intrusive probing to removing their clothes to sexual favours. This is where the casting couch comes in as it is largely associated with sexual harassment. Sexual harassment need not be physical; it may be verbal or behavioural as well. Unfortunately the mere term sexual harassment is equivocal and may often cause controversies as it is challenging to “distinguish sexual harassment as a legal concept from psychological experience of the victims” (Kleppe 2010: 3).
With the recent adaptation of postfeminism there is an ongoing widespread belief that women willingly inhibit themselves to the casting couch. But I believe there’s more to this culture than just its neoliberal subjectivities. Gill and Donaghue (2013: 248) state that postfeminism is a term used in four contrasting ways, “to designate an epistemological shift within feminism, a historical break with (second wave) feminism, a backlash against feminism and a cultural sensibility”. Backlash discourses arguably have many contradictory forms (Gill and Donaghue 2013: 248). One such example of backlash against feminism is how the casting couch is used under the pretext of postfeminism i.e. all of women’s unhappiness is directed towards feminism but all the while blaming women and stating that they can’t have it all. I think this is quite unfair because women around the world have constantly had to fight for basic rights as opposed to men – who are seen as the default gender. To be fair I do understand that mens’ bodies are also objectified and subjected to the casting couch; however I still believe that the average underprivileged woman is still lost in patriarchal oppression – since almost 70 years in post colonial India. At the same time I also see an emerging era of postfeminism in the country.
To say that India is a country of diversity and disparity would be an understatement. With each passing day the divide grows larger – between rich and poor, between educated and illiterate, between rural and urban women. On one hand are the possibly uneducated oppressed women; and on the other hand are the ‘modern women’ who abide by postfeminism which to an extent is “short of gender conflict and identity politics, and uninfected by the reactive, explosive and disruptive political stuff of feminism” (Singh 2004: 53).
Second wave feminism is pertinent to postfeminism, and more so to the casting couch. However, second wave feminists were largely accused of being inflexible about feminine consumer culture (Gill and Donaghue 2013: 249) thereby causing third wave feminism to be isolated as a “generational story”. Its primary focuses were on new femininities where women painted their nails, wore high heels and participated in a sexualised culture. Such behaviour is hastily represented by the media, which inevitably omits the actual genuine complexities of feminism – which unfortunately is the current scenario in modern Indian film industry as well.
Lazar (2011: 38) explains that this “emancipated new femininity is a subject effect of a broader, global neoliberal postfeminist discourse”. The media has long since represented the discourse of postfeminism by popularising certain feminist ideas while assuming that feminism is no longer political. The media continues to highlight certain themes related to postfeminism such as personal empowerment, entitlement to pleasure and emancipation. The ideas of empowerment and emancipation are both interlinked to postfeminism and its role in the casting couch. Gill (2008) discusses the growing trend where companies promote products targeting women using a discourse of empowerment i.e. women are invited to purchase products as a sign of their power and independence. Rather than empowerment, I believe it is a pseudo power which inevitably tries to show women as shallow beings – the underlying ideology of consumer culture continues to remain political. Similarly, by inviting women with the notion of emancipation in beauty, companies try and label a need in women to perpetually mask themselves – is this perhaps a new femininity? Or is this simply a disguise of neoliberal subjectivity?
The elements of postfeminism are deeply rooted with the necessities of neoliberal societies for individuals to comprehend and coexist as “autonomous, self-responsible agents” (Gill and Donaghue 2013: 251). Moreover, postfeminist culture may arguably enfold the neoliberal principle that an individuals’ life is a cumulative formation of his / her person choices, opinions and subjectivities. Gill and Donaghue (2013: 251) further argue that this is done on the basis of “reframing the existence of continuing gender inequalities, and in rejecting the possibility that gender-based injustice might remain a live force shaping the experiences of women”.
Femininity has always been treated as the ‘other’ of modernity, where the “modern subject was cerebral, autonomous, rational, exercising a confident mastery of public space and expert knowledge whereas femininity was figured as its opposite – bodily, private, emotional, responsive – dependent rather than autonomous” (Tincknell 2011: 85). This has subsequently led to the “hyper-commodification” of the female body and its “availability as an object of an evaluate gaze” irrespective of who that body belongs to. This inevitably affects the movie in question. For example, if a woman agrees to grant sexual favours to a director for a role in his movie then does that mean she has the merit for being in the movie?
Moreover, film industry’s are – by and large – built in part on sex i.e. sex talks are common in and around the sets. As a consequence to this, sexual harassment is taken less seriously since it is considered as part of a neo-normative culture. Borcherding and Filson (2000: 27) further state that “exchanges of all sorts of favours are routine amongst those in the business, and quid pro quo sex may arguably be one of the commodities”. This goes on to show that women are still treated as the non-default gender and their femininity is not celebrated, rather it is exploited. This exploitation is visible not only off screen but onscreen as well. Violence and rape are often overly sexualised for the benefit of the male gaze. The unfortunate encounter of violence and sexualised bodies together tend to desensitise its viewers about rape and violence against women.
India is today at a crossroad with women belonging to two entirely different categories: the oppressed and the feminist. Within this rapidly growing nation the casting couch has existed since the inception of cinema. Many involved call it a myth – thereby denying its very life; some call it a taboo and refuse to further discuss on the matter. However, I see it as a segment of the harsh reality.
- Borcherding, T.E. and Filson, D. (2000) Conflicts of Interest in the Hollywood Film Industry: Coming to America – The Tales from the Casting Couch, Gross and Net, in a Risky Business. Unpublished booklet. California: Claremont Colleges
- Caroll, R. (2015) The Power of the Casting Couch is in how it’s used to Shame its Victims [online] available from <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/11/casting-couch-coercion-rape-shame-victims?CMP=share_btn_tw > [18 March 2016]
- Gill, R. (2008) ‘Empowerment/ Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising’. Feminism and Psychology 18 (1), 35-60
- Gill, R. and Donaghue, N. (2013) ‘As if Postfeminism Had Come True: The Turn to Agency in Culural Shades of Sexualisation’. in Gender, Agency and Coercion. by Madhok, S., Philips, A., and Wilson, K. London: Palgrave Macmillan Publications
- Huffpost Women (2015) The Power of the Casting Couch is in how it’s used to Shame its Victims [online] available from < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/11/the-power-of-the_n_7776570.html> [29 May 2016]
- Kleppe, B. (ed) (2010) The Casting Couch: Sexual Harassment Among Norwegian Actors. ‘6th International Conference on Cultural Policy Research’. held 24-27 August at Jyvaskyla, Finland: Telemarksforsking
- Lazar, M.M. (2011) ‘The Right to be Beautiful: Postfeminist Identity and Consumer Beauty Advertising’. in New Femininities. ed. by Gill, R., and Scharff, C. London: Palgrave Macmillan Publications
- Singh, K.D. (2004) Feminism and Postfeminism: The Context of Modern Indian Women Poets Writing in English. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons Publications
- Tincknell, E. (2011) ‘Scourging the Abject Body: Ten Years Younger and Fragmented Femininity under Neoliberalism’. in New Femininities. ed. by Gill, R., and Scharff, C. London: Palgrave Macmillan Publications